Not Like Us...
“The gunfire around us makes it hard to hear. But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it's not shouting. Even when it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard—over armies—when it's telling the truth.” –The Interpreter (2005)
The line in Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House inched forward. It was utterly silent, almost as if we were the ones hiding from the Nazis. Slipping behind a bookcase, we entered her room, which was hardly the size of a closet. No one dared breathe a word. In the stillness I could almost hear her hushed voice. This wasn’t the home of some fictitious character. A real girl had once scribbled diary entries in this room, capturing the hopes and fears of a Jew in hiding during the Holocaust.
“If there is one thing we must learn from the Holocaust, it is that silence is the worst enemy of justice. One voice, speaking in anger, is given power by the indifference of those around him. … The Holocaust began with the first person that did not speak up, for their silence condoned the actions of a few …” (Silence Feeds Hatred, Cadet 2/C Jennifer M. Runion, Coast Guard Academy).
Once the lie had been planted, the rest was easy – dehumanize the Jews. They were, after all, inferior. The Jews could be herded around in train cars like livestock. Names were a trivial detail when numbers could do. Extermination became a business. But the Nazis failed to realize the paradox of their actions. In attempting to take away the Jews’ humanity, they willfully destroyed their own. In stark contrast to the systematic savagery and carnal mindset of the Nazis, the Jews retained traces of their humanity through countless acts of decency.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl).
Sixty-three years later, we still struggle in silent apathy about the truth of a person’s humanity. In a world wrenched apart by hatred and egotism, we watch from the sidelines as the powerful few suppress the outcasts. We subconsciously believe their lie that such inferiors are less than human. We are surrounded by a sea of noise. The television constantly blares, the iPod shuffles endlessly, and advertisements scream for our attention. Yet the irony of our generation is that at the times we should be shouting at the top of our lungs, we are strangely voiceless. We remain willfully indifferent and say nothing.
Halfway around the world, Kenya suffers from ethnic cleansing as members of the Kikuyu tribe are driven from their homes, Darfur is locked in war and genocide, and racial hatred drives the Middle East further into bloodshed. Even on the streets of L.A., Latino gangs kill blacks in their neighborhoods simply because of their race. The motivating force behind this bloodbath is the same lie that guided Nazi Germany– they are not like us.
Embracing the mindset of Nazi Germany is a subtle process that starts with the simple things – a racial joke or a stereotype. The cartoons of the Jews may have seemed like harmless caricatures, but they were the catalyst of the Holocaust. The Museum of Tolerance and the Holocaust Memorial Museum serve as constant reminders of how far those attitudes can take us. We quietly read the 9000 names of those killed and cremated at Auschwitz in just a single day. Tears trickle down as we stifle a gasp at the pictures of the endless lines of starved skeletal corpses in the concentration camps. It is the atrocities of history, leaving the world shocked and voiceless. The second we let the Holocaust become merely an event in our history books, we will become just like the inhumane Nazis and passive Germans.
We must not forget the past, but if we are not motivated to action, then we are doomed to repeat it. The wallflower eating lunch alone is just as human as the most popular jock. Being different does not imply inferiority. Preventing the indifference can be as simple as saying hello to someone outside our circle. We must reach out to the unpopular, look past skin color and ethnicity, find the humanness underneath, and say something. My school hosts a special assembly for Invisible Children, which is an organization that helps children affected by the war in Uganda. One nationwide event Invisible Children directs is called “Displace Me,” where people personally experience what it is like to be displaced in a refugee camp. This is one way people stand up and say something through their words and actions. The opportunities are out there, but we must make the effort to find them. We cannot be apathetic and believe the lie, or the hatred and oppression will continue. We must stand up to evil or be consumed by it. It is not easy, but it is the crucial first step.
In a world still trying to drown out the reality of humanity, we are faced with a choice – to justify our indifference through the lie or use our voice to help the oppressed. More than 60 years ago, they were human. Today, I am human. In that gap, our lives connect in a whisper: “I am just like you.” That is the truth I cling to, and one I refuse to stifle and lose in the sea of noise.
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